How to improve the state’s housing stock was the question on everyone’s mind at the Southeast Iowa Housing Conference Tuesday at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center.
More than 100 people representing 30 communities attended the event, which featured keynote speakers Bill Menner of Iowa Rural Development Council, and Debi Durham of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
The conference was hosted by Pathfinders Resource Conservation & Development, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and the University of Iowa, with support from The Fairfield Economic Development Association, The Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, Alliant Energy, Opportunity Squared, and The Iowa Housing Partnership.
Suzannah Schindler, Pathfinders RC&D project coordinator and housing conference coordinator who planned the event, said the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting was to continue a dialogue about how to address housing needs in rural communities. Pathfinders’ role is to connect groups involved in this project, and guide them to the resources available to meet housing needs.
Pathfinders’ executive director Anna Bruen said one of the takeaways from the conference was the importance of public engagement.
“The city has tools to incentivize housing, and the state has financial programs, but in order to have the housing in a community that reflects its values, an engaged housing task force is important,” she said. “That’s one way a member of the public can get involved without having to be a builder, a developer or a city planner.”
Bruen said Tuesday’s conference focused on what city and county leaders can do to address the housing shortage. If a similar housing conference were held again, she suggested the next one could choose a different target audience, such as builders and developers.
During a panel discussion in the afternoon, Carolyn Dyer of Iowa City Cohousing explained to the group the benefits of communal living, and how it was one way of tackling the shortage of affordable housing. She said cohousing involves sharing amenities with one’s neighbors. Not only does this provide opportunities for socialization, it also saves money.
Dyer’s organization is building a cohousing community to “create a different way to live that is more sustainable than conventional housing.” She described it as a series of small, attached homes including duplexes and four-plexes. Members of the organization share space in what they call the “common house.”
Iowa City Cohousing has built 18 homes and plans to build another 18 on its property called Prairie Hill. Of the 18 built, 13 are occupied. Dyer mentioned that one of the benefits of cohousing is that amenities that might be seldom used in a house, such as a guest room, are shared with the other members of the group, reducing the cost for everyone.
“We have a big kitchen and dining room, too, so we share meals once a week,” Dyer said. “When [more members join], we’ll probably share meals a couple of times per week. Right now, people are volunteering to cook for everybody, but we may eventually form a cooking committee.”
The Ledger asked Dyer if cohousing is similar to living in a sorority or fraternity.
“A little bit, except we each have our own houses,” she said. “Cohousing permits both privacy and community. I’m sort of a hermit, so I stay in my house a lot, but when I go to the common house, I do things with other people.”
The cohousing group has a wood shop the members share. She mentioned that six members have table saws, but five of them are going to be sold because the group only needs one.
Dyer said she hoped the conference attendees came to view cohousing as a possible way of living, especially in an environment where good housing is hard to find.
“Building new stick houses is expensive,” she said. “Our costs of living are quite a bit lower because of small spaces and sharing amenities.”
Training inmates to build homes
Mike Norris of the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission talked about a plan his organization is undertaking to help train inmates in home construction called “Homes for Iowa.” Not only will this plan produce affordable homes, it will give inmates skills that they can use after leaving prison, especially in industries lacking skilled workers.
“By skilled trades, we’re talking about electrical, plumbing, roofing, carpentry, sheetrock, HVAC [heating ventilation and air conditioning],” he said. “This will be a selective program. You have to demonstrate excellent behavior, go through an interview, and demonstrate safety knowledge around a construction site and using power tools.”
Norris said his organization is very close to securing funding for the program, which will come from either the Iowa Finance Authority, Iowa Workforce Development or private foundations.
Twenty-two inmates are in the program, and the plan is to have them build 22 homes in the next two years outside the town of Newton. Iowa Prison Industries already owns the land where the homes will be built. Norris expects funding to be secured soon so that four of the homes can be built later this year.
South Dakota has a similar program to the one Iowa is trying to get off the ground. Norris has seen South Dakota’s facilities, and toured their inmate classrooms when the prisoners were taking an electrical exam.
A member of the audience asked Norris if he worried about giving inmates an advantage over private contractors performing the same work. Norris said he did not see the inmates as competing with or replacing contractors because “these kinds of houses are not being built right now. This just means more for the contractors to do because this construction is not happening otherwise.”
Norris said he expects contractors to benefit from this program because it will produce skilled workers they can hire. He said there is a wait list in South Dakota for contractors to hire graduates of the state’s inmate home construction program.